How to be anti-racist, rather than ‘not racist’

A grad offers suggestions for true inclusivity

Remember those black squares in your social media feeds in June 2020? (Full disclosure, NAIT posted them too.)

They came from #TheShowMustBePaused, a movement launched by two Black women and music industry executives, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang.

They hoped the squares would lead to reflection and productive conversations about how to support the Black community. But their call to action was distorted into the broader #BlackOutTuesday campaign that saw individuals and brands pause regular social media activity as feeds filled with black squares.

What happened was those squares, however well meaning, buried the very message and voices – Black voices – that needed amplification.

Several key questions remain. How do we keep up the conversation about racism? And what does it mean to be anti-racist, rather than just “not racist,” as many people claim to be?

Christabel KhumaloOne way is to educate ourselves. This past summer, NAIT alumna Christabel Khumalo (Business Administration - Finance ’10), a local business consultant and mentor for the Edmonton Region Immigration Employment Council, guided an online conversation about racism in Canada, particularly affecting the Black community.

However, just like we can’t post a black square on social media once without being committed to doing more, a single conversation isn’t enough. Techlifetoday spoke with Khumalo, who shared her insights into Black Lives Matter, white privilege and how we can continue our work on being anti-racist.

Techlifetoday: I’ve heard a lot of non-Black people admit that they don’t know how to approach the conversation about racism. They’re worried their efforts will be met with suspicion or that they’ll say something racist. Or that they’ll be criticized for putting the emotional labour on Black people by asking them to teach them what to say or how to act. What would you tell them?

Christabel Khumalo: That’s the risk they’re going to have to take. Accept and acknowledge those fears and take the risk of not seeming genuine.

It won’t be as easy as reading a book or following a checklist. I think it’s good that non-Black people are seeing all these different ways that they could be received. They’re going to experience antagonism and some Black people who [will] want nothing to do with them. That’s the reality.

But if your goal is to educate yourself and to work towards anti-racism initiatives, take the risk. Because, guess what? Black people who want their voices heard are taking that risk too. They are taking the risk that people will discriminate against them. They’re also taking a risk that people won’t believe them.

Accept and acknowledge those fears and take the risk of not seeming genuine.

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This isn’t a new conversation. What was different about Black Lives Matter this year that finally spurred non-Black people to get involved and recognize their own privilege?

I think the #MeToo movement and sentiment of “enough is enough” has propelled the Black Lives Matter conversation into the spotlight. Black people are tired and not willing to sit back and be politically correct anymore. And if change doesn’t happen, then we’ve at least shown that our experiences with racism exist.

Where the disconnect happens is when people think that Black people are just joining the bandwagon because it’s become a trendy conversation.

I’ve had people who would ask me if I’ve actually been discriminated against and it’s uncomfortable for them to think that we might have felt this way the whole time. It’s shocking to hear the voice of the oppressed. There are individuals who literally had no idea that Black Canadians even existed. This was an American problem and not our problem.

What would you say to people who resist the term “white privilege”?

A lot of resistance from non-Black people is because of fear. Usually when non-Black people fight the existence of racism or white privilege, it’s because of the fear of acknowledging it. What would it mean if I acknowledged this happened and that I have white privilege? There’s a lot of valuable fear in that acknowledgement.

“A lot of resistance from non-Black people is because of fear.”

Addressing the fear is very important. That’s a challenge that someone accepts with this journey. It’s quite a small price to pay. Having white privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. Nor does it mean that people who have white privilege didn’t have struggles in their lives or face hardships. It means that the colour of their skin isn’t one of the things that made life harder.

On the other side, I’ve also heard from Black people who are weary of well-meaning but misguided attempts at being anti-racist. They have had the responsibility, wanted or not, of educating about race, privilege, bias and have even had to counsel some who are worried about seeming racist. How do they reconcile that for themselves?

This is a process of healing that we have to go through personally. It is not an event, it’s a process. Acknowledging that this is a process will allow you to accept possibilities like people not being genuine and all the other negative aspects that come about it.

There’s change happening on both sides. It’s not going to happen because of one Instagram post or one webinar. It’s not going to happen from reading one book. There’s not going to be one answer. This is centuries of a deeply rooted issue.

Since your talk at NAIT, there’s been a lot of conversations everywhere demanding accountability, representation and diversity. How do people practise this in their daily lives so it’s not like completing a checkbox that they do once?

We have to keep talking to each other, listen and not be afraid to be wrong. It’s also important to find your own voice in these issues. It doesn’t have to be through social media. It can come from attending the sessions like we did in July and speaking up. Engage in conversation, listen to diverse voices and help amplify them. And, remember that staying silent is also a statement.

“Saying nothing does not advance anti-racism.”

Saying nothing does not advance anti-racism. It’s also important to be open to various perspectives. Question why you might feel resistant to a certain conversation about racism or privilege and what might be triggering it. And most importantly, stay educated. Keep seeking opportunities and being intentional in teaching yourself and your children about anti-racism.

Are there any points that you would like to speak about to help people keep the conversation going?

While a lot of people are having these conversations online or at work or other arenas, it is still a personal journey. That’s the bottom line. It starts with an individual and their own personal reflections.

For example, when you’re having conversations about race, reflecting on What am I doing? What am I questioning? What am I acknowledging? And, What am I denouncing? And, Am I having these conversations or am I staying out of it to keep the peace?

You should look at becoming anti-racist the same way you would look at personal development and sustainability for both an organization and an individual. You don’t get to a point where you say, “Well, I’ve done enough personal development now.” It takes continuous intentional steps.

And, finally, the biggest thing is to understand that Canada doesn’t have a specific look. Someone who doesn’t look like you is just as much Canadian as you are. It confuses me when someone claiming to be Canadian is denouncing someone else for not being Canadian. Other than the Indigeous community, we can all be asked, “Where are you from, originally?”

We all journeyed here one way or another at different times and we all created how Canada looks and sounds.

Resources for learning about Black history

Black-Canadian history is not formally part of the K-12 curriculum in Canadian schools. We asked Christabel Khumalo to recommend resources for learning more.

“Like much of the facts about residential schools, Black history in Canada often goes unlearned,” Khumalo says.

Part of learning the history is also understanding that there is a difference between the history of African Americans, the history of Black Canadians and even Black Canadians in Alberta, she says.

“Here’s a key moment that hits close to home: the Ku Klux Klan only lost their legal status in Alberta in 2003,” she says.

Khumalo recommends several books in the Library Archives of Canada:

  • Blacks in Deep Snow: Black Pioneers in Canada by Colin A. Thomson
  • Canada and its people of African Descent by Leo Berkley
  • Story of Deportation of Negroes from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone by A.G. Archibald.

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